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Public libraries unknowingly offered ‘hateful’ books through private service

Major public libraries in Boston, Worcester, and elsewhere were unknowingly offering e-books that promote white supremacy and neo-Nazi philosophy, as well as e-books of Holocaust deniers, through their subscriptions to the electronic collection of a private company.

Jason Homer, executive director of the Worcester Public Library, said the revelation came as a shock in late January when he started looking at the collection of Hoopla, the electronic media provider.

“We’re talking about deeply damaging information that isn’t factual,” said Homer, who runs the state’s second-largest library system. “And without any sort of reference checks, any authorities… downplaying the voices of LGBTQIA+ and minority voices or underrepresented groups.”

While public librarians curate a library’s physical collections on-site, most also rely on private vendors to provide e-books that patrons can borrow to read on their Kindles and iPads. Hoopla, an Ohio-based company that is used by more than 8,000 public libraries in the United States and Canada, offered titles such as “Debating the Holocaust” and “The Hoax of the Twentieth Century,” also referencing to the Holocaust. as publications offered by far-right publishers Arktos Media and Antelope Hill Publishing, two groups that the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as hate groups.

Alison Macrina, director of the nonprofit Library Freedom Project, said the extent of misinformation offered by Hoopla stunned her and other librarians who found dozens of problematic titles or publishers among the 60,000 electronic books offered by the service.

“Basically any search you do, for any type of controversial topic, quoted/unquoted, you get all kinds of misinformation. It’s like “COVID is a Chinese hoax”. “COVID is a punishment from God,” Macrina said. “Feminism picks up all kinds of garbage on abortion. Homosexuality is like ‘praying to drive out homosexuals’. The worst had mostly misinformation, but all had it in the top results.

Hoopla said in a newsletter in late February that when it became aware of a “limited number” of controversial titles on its platform, it removed them. But the extent of the problem remains unclear, as does how it will apply the standards of its library customers in the future. In the newsletter, founder and CEO Jeffrey Jankowski also said the situation highlights “a complex issue that libraries have always faced when curating their collections – avoiding a culture of censorship.”

The company reiterated that in a brief April 7 statement to GBH News: “This is a complex problem that libraries have always faced. We are working to refine our policies and create more tools for libraries to choose the titles they offer to their customers. »

But it’s clearly a new twist for many librarians who thought Hoopla managed its content according to the standards set by the industry and each library’s board of trustees.

Librarians also organize a library’s collection according to guidelines established by the American Library Association.

Just last year, the professional group amended its code of ethics to state, “We affirm the inherent dignity and rights of every person. We work to recognize and dismantle systemic and individual biases; facing inequity and oppression; strengthen diversity and inclusion; and to advance racial and social justice in our libraries, communities, professions and associations.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said she was surprised by the revelation about Hoopla’s content.

“At a minimum, I think vendors should provide tools for libraries so they can manage collections online,” she said.

Caldwell-Stone added that she thinks the situation is “a bit of shared responsibility” with local librarians.

“It is up to the individual library and library employees to ensure that the resource conforms to the library’s written policies and mission,” she said. “You know, and every library is different, every library will have a different approach to different books.”

This feeling contrasts with the frustration expressed by some librarians.

Andrea Fiorillo, who co-chairs the Massachusetts Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom/Social Responsibilities Committee, said Hoopla has undermined the work of librarians and the ethics of the industry.

“It’s a bit painful,” Fiorillo said. “It’s hard when we have to spin our wheels saying, yes, the Holocaust happened and [this book] does not belong to our shelves. And it does not increase your intellectual freedom to have access to such fake content. And not just wrong, but dangerous.

And Macrina, of the Library Freedom Project, said promises to do better were not enough.

“Libraries should be trusted centers for quality information,” she wrote in a Feb. 22 letter to Hoopla. “These companies undermine the library’s traditional role in the information landscape. Bad actors load library platforms with a mush of misinformation that undermines intentional, community-specific collection development efforts by librarians. ”

Hoopla is a subsidiary of Midwest Tapes LLC, which supplies public libraries with physical DVDs, Blu-rays, and audiobooks. Jankowski said in interviews that the company is growing by leaps and bounds, offering services not only in major US cities, but also in other countries.

“Our content development and acquisition teams are constantly on the lookout for new and unique offerings that aim to delight both our libraries and their customers,” Jankowski said in a 2018 interview with Cord Cutters News. “Our goal is to create an environment in which patrons can engage more deeply with their library by experimenting and discovering new authors and genres that they may have been hesitant to try before or struggled with. to be found elsewhere.”

Nahant’s librarian, Sharon Hawkes, noted that Hoopla’s personal or financial interest depends on the public sector and taxpayers, who foot the bill for lending their materials. Public libraries pay Hoopla up to $4.99 per e-book each time a customer checks out one.

“It would be important to know how these books ended up in the Hoopla collection,” she wrote in a librarian thread. obtained by GBH News. “While I don’t designate Hoopla as an authoritative resource, neither would I expect them to offer material that is the exact opposite of accuracy and authority.”

Homer said he realized Worcester’s library system not only offered books he wouldn’t publish in print, but also shop publications, such as a 56-page publication titled ‘Coronavirus’ who conspiratorially blames the pandemic on several people, including Hunter Biden, the president’s son.

Homer said he spoke with Jankowski by phone after he threatened to terminate City’s contract with Hoopla. When he told Jankowski about the book involving Hunter Biden, he said Jankowski heaved a sigh and promised he would make changes.

“We really don’t know their process,” Homer said of Hoopla’s e-book collection. “It wasn’t just a few [problematic] titles, and it was more widespread than they ever thought possible.

Homer said he and other librarians will meet with Hoopla officials in June at the American Library Association’s national conference in Washington, DC.